Bird Highway, Nov 2015

27°44’49.91″N 81°46’47.98″W elev 74 ft
Launch site: Fort Meade
Landing site: Pioneer Park, Pioneer Blvd, Zolfo Springs, FL 33890, (863) 735-0330

We returned to Peace River for Thanksgiving. This year we kayaked upper Peace River, from Fort Meade to Zolfo Springs. We left the car at Pioneer Park, where you can park overnight for free, and took a cab to Fort Meade for $40 including tip. Our cab driver, Mario, said it would be ok to give out his phone number: (863) 245-1527.

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At fort Meade the river is narrow and intimate. It had overflowed from several days of rain, which sometimes made it difficult to tell which way the river bent. The current was fast and there were many downed trees, making paddling a little more rigorous than the year before.The thorny water locust trees that lined the banks were a concern in our inflatable kayak.

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We heard lots of alligators; we saw few because they tended to jump in the water with a loud splash before we could get close enough to see them.

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It was like a bird highway. Great blue herons coasted down the river 20 feet above the water, following its bends like a race car driver follows the bends of a race track. Brown and white ibises poked about for crayfish in pairs, little blue herons, their beaks a striking midnight blue in the sunlight, hunted frogs, egrets waded up to their bums in search of fish, white herons scanned the surface of the river for insects from atop fallen trees, and black headed vultures hung out in flocks high above the water hoping to spot a cow or armadillo carcass.

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River cooters are shy like alligators and jump, sometimes from impressive heights, into the water when they hear us coming. Their compact little bodies make melodic plopping sounds when they hit the water.

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We arrived late the first day, leaving us only three hours of paddling before it was time to set up camp. A campground provided a convenient place to spend the night. Rustic, it had no water or electricity, although there was a pavilion, bonfire pit, porta-johns, an elaborate, four-grill barbecue and a dumpster. The porta-john was green with lichen and neither Gauthier nor I dared to go in it. I was afraid of what it might smell like, but Gauthier was afraid of what we might find in it.

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The ceiling of the pavilion was covered in spider webs and mud dauber nests. Spider carcasses made it look like a macabre scene from a movie. I was terrified and transfixed. Gauthier wanted to set our tent up under the pavilion, but didn’t argue when I suggested that we set it up under the stars instead.

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Gauthier made moong dal and couscous with harissa for dinner, and southern hospitality supplied us with sweet potato pudding. Shortly after we arrived, a truck pulling a trailer drove up and a man in his 50s stepped out. Walking over to us, he introduced himself as Martin and asked us how we were doing. He was talkative and told us the park was built and maintained by the company he worked for, Mosaic. I told him I recognized the name because a sign in the entrance to the park said that the park was dedicated to all the people from Mosaic who had donated their time and labor to the construction and upkeep of the park. That made him smile. He said the park was built 40 years ago and had suffered greatly during the 2005 hurricane, but that everyone had chipped in to restore it.

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I asked him about the spiders and he said they were harmless, that they called them “house spiders” (I later learned that they are called neoscona domiciliorum or spotted orb weaver). He said the mud daubers wouldn’t hurt you unless you crushed one, which was unlikely to happen unintentionally.

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Before he left, he said he and his two children would be camping on the other side of the campground and that we wouldn’t hear from them again, and insisted that we have some of his home made sweet potato pudding, still warm. It’s easy to regard the Mosaic phosphate mining company as the enemy – breaking EPA laws and decimating the landscape – but it was hard not to like Martin.

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Mosquitoes made it necessary to stay inside the tent, but there was a full moon and a clear sky and it was warm, but not humid, and we left the rainfly off the tent so that it was flooded with moonlight. I woke up several times throughout the night; every time I woke up the moon had traveled a little further across the sky, reminding me that we are all just floating in space.

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Breakfast was scrambled eggs with fresh green onion, followed by pita bread filled with Nutella, peanut butter and honey. After sticking my foot in a fire ant’s nest, we returned to the river around 9:30 AM.

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The river widened near Wauchula. As we approached the city we expected to see other kayakers, and were very surprised when we didn’t. The only other boat we saw was a fishing boat with a trawler. There was one man inside the boat and another chest deep in the water outside the boat. The man in the boat yelled to us in a delightful, southern accent, “Did you see that alligator over there?! It’s 12 feet long!”  The man in the water smiled and nodded his head and pointed in the direction of the alligator. And there you have it. If a local fisher is not afraid to be up to his chest in the water with a 12 foot alligator nearby, I am not afraid of alligators either. Well, not very afraid.

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It was the most peaceful paddling imaginable; effortless in a gently moving current that guided us around bends and islands. We took tiny sips of aromatic heirloom whiskey by Widow Jane.

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We stopped for lunch at Paynes Creek Historic State Park where we were welcomed by a “No Camping” sign. I wondered why they needed swinging trash cans. Did they prevent raccoons from making a mess?

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Come 4:00 it was time to start looking for another place to camp. A lovely field on a high bank seemed safe from unsuspecting alligators. We had mashed potatoes and pouched tuna followed by split pea soup for dinner.

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That night, something large and solid rustled in the bushes nearby. An auroch, Gauthier said it was. But Ollie and I weren’t fooled. We knew it was an armadillo.

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In the morning, dew-drenched grass sparkled in the sunlight and revealed many tiny spider webs – orb and three dimensional – suspended from blades of grass. Ollie and I explored the webs for a while until we discovered a tick. Thankfully it was the only tick we saw. It was an all-black specimen, not like the red dog ticks we have around Miami.

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Between Wauchula and Zolfo Springs we passed many ranches and private homes. We saw confederate flags, enormous live oaks, and sable palmettos clinging to the river bank with roots that looked like hair. Once, we heard the sound of human voices interspersed with gun fire a little too close for comfort.

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Just before Zolfo Springs boat launch at Pioneer Park, you learn why it’s called Zolfo Springs. Gurgling up into the river, springs cause the tiniest bit of white water. I was very sorry to reach Pioneer Park, although the prospect of a shower tempered my disappointment.

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On the way home we stopped for lunch at Wheeler’s in Arcadia and browsed the antiques on sale in the stands that line the street every Saturday. An amazing traveling companion, Gauthier drove us through some very unique landscapes on the way home. Although we couldn’t go in the Archbold Biological Station to explore the unique Florida scrub because we had Ollie with us, we drove through it on Old State Route 8.

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We also drove by a pine tree plantation. On one side of the road was a vast forest of pines trees growing in eerie rows, and on the other side was the muddy and desolate remains of a harvested forest.

We traveled through Florida flatlands that reminded Gauthier of the south of France, and alongside massive orange groves, and around gigantic ranches with “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!” signs hung outside. The Brahman cattle with their humped backs were a sight to see.

Closer to home, near Lake Okeechobee, they were harvesting sugar cane in the cane plantations. Bright lights lit up the fields like fire flies.

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